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Dialogue with a distant past

Exhibit brings together archeology and contemporary artists

Stone sculptures predating Christ...

Karem KilimStone sculptures predating Christ…Karem Kilim

How to conceptualize contemporary art drawing on our oldest artistic traditions: this was the gauntlet thrown down by the 34th Panorama of Brazilian Art, on display at the Museum of Modern Art in São Paulo (MAM-SP), which closed on December 18, 2015. The heart of the exhibit, entitled Da pedra da terra daqui (Rocks from this place here), is a representative set of 60 polished stone sculptures, produced between 4000 and 1000 B.C. along the coast of what is now southern Brazil and northern Uruguay. Most of the sculptures were found during the excavation of sambaquis, the Portuguese name which refers to prehistoric kitchen middens, which are man-made shell mounds that had various uses (ranging from homes to tombstones) and distributed along this coastal area. Six contemporary artists were invited to dialogue with the indigenous pieces as a formal unit: Cildo Meireles, Cao Guimarães, Miguel Rio Branco, Berna Reale, Erika Verzutti and Pitágoras Lopes.

“I believe that this exhibit showcases the artist observing his environment – whether 6,000 years ago or today,” explains curator Aracy Amaral, a full professor of the History of Art at the School of Architecture and Urban Studies at the University of São Paulo (FAU-USP). For over 20 years, her goal has been to shine a light on the cohesiveness, beauty and stylistic unity that characterizes these archeological finds now on exhibit. The audience for art in Brazil that is well acquainted with the work of  Italian artist Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957) from Rome, for example, has had little chance to see these polished stone sculptures up close, most of which depict animals (also known as zoólitos) that recall the elegant forms of the modernist master. “The fascinating part is the mystery surrounding these objects that managed to survive the centuries,” says Amaral. “Their presence at tomb sites also says something about the religious beliefs of these ancient peoples, who had disappeared thousands of years before European settlers arrived.”

...and work of contemporary artist Berna Reale from Para: a reflection on current challenges

Rômulo Fialdini…and work of contemporary artist Berna Reale from Para: a reflection on current challengesRômulo Fialdini

Since 1980, Amaral has been interested in publicizing the stone sculpture collection. That year, she visited almost every museum that had a collection of these pieces in its archives. In a 1981 article entitled “A escultura brasileira” (Brazilian sculpture), she wrote that the stone sculptures produced by the indigenous artists “are a sophisticated visual and artistic solution, while maintaining their connection to the local context in an organic way, drawing from it inspiration and material for the sculptures.” Beginning in early 2000, when her desire to bring these sculptures together in an exhibit became an actual project, Amaral sought help from archeologist André Prous, a professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) and author of the book O Brasil antes dos brasileiros (Brazil before there were Brazilians) (published by Jorge Zahar Editor, 2007).

The decision to invite only a small group of artists from the large community of contemporary artists in Brazil without any obligation to include young artists is a move away from the trend in recent decades in which the Panorama of Brazilian Art grouped a large number of artists around a curator’s particular premise. Amaral and her assistant curator, Paulo Miyada, chose the artists in a more intuitive way also because they have a commanding presence in the contemporary art world. Each artist in some way celebrates the recovery of a distant past and the aesthetic implications of thinking critically about national culture from a much wider perspective than the conventional approach, which dates Brazilian culture from the discovery of Brazil by European settlers.

Remnants of a culture that failed in the work of Miguel Rio Branco

Rômulo FialdiniRemnants of a culture that failed in the work of Miguel Rio BrancoRômulo Fialdini

In a 15-minute video essay, Cao Guimarães extends the timeframe and discovers in a pilgrimage through the region where the sambaquis were found in Santa Catarina, something akin to the lost link with the traditions and habits of the people who created these treasures prior to the arrival of the Portuguese explorer Pedro Alavares Cabral. Today, like yesterday, there are people who live on the fish they catch and the shellfish they clean. Berna Reale, for her part, talks not of the past, but rather of the challenges and crossroads of today’s world. In both O tema da festa (The theme of the party) and the video Habitus, the artist and criminal investigator from Belem exposes the naturalization of violence in Brazilian society.

A natural pessimist, Miguel Rio Branco reconstructs a post-human world, in which nature takes over what remains of a culture that failed, represented by wrecked television sets and the remnants of twisted materials. Erika Verzutti and Pitágoras Lopes create works that deal in a more literal sense with the universe of artists that created the zoólitos.

The most daring and complex work in the exhibit was created by Cildo Meireles. The artist finalized a project designed in 1969, Elevar a estatura do Brasil (Elevating Brazil’s stature), bringing to the top of the Pico da Neblina, Brazil’s highest mountain, a stone taken from its lowest elevation. The project required partnerships, especially with photographer Edouard Fraipont, charged with implementing it, and intense negotiations with the Yanomami Indians, who believe that the Pico da Neblina or Yaripo (as they call it) is sacred ground.